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Climate change and the Fabian Society

By Don Aitkin - posted Tuesday, 14 July 2015


I joined the Fabian Society so long ago that I've forgotten when. Some time in the 1960s, I would think. For those who don't know about it, the Fabian Society is an organisation dedicated to achieving progress through gradual and piecemeal reforms rather than through revolution. It was founded in the late 19th century, and predates the Labour Party in Britain. It had as members and supporters many of the most prominent thinkers of their day, and a lot of its ideas have found their way into law, and the way we live.

My political heritage came through Protestant working class grandparents and school-teacher parents: education, hard work, sympathy for the underdog, save, own your home, don't borrow except for a house, and so on. At university I gained the view that history was the working out of the idea of human progress. I grew up in the heartland of the old Country Party, so to all the foregoing I gained in addition sympathy for farmers, graziers and rural workers, and a feeling that those of us who lived in the country rather than the city were also underdogs - a thought emphasised whenever we went to visit relatives in Sydney. I still hope that Country beats City in Rugby League. Since 1958, my first Federal election, I have voted Labor more often than for its main opponents.

The Fabians take their name from a celebrated Roman General, Quintus Fabius Maximus, who got his nickname Cunctator (delayer) through defeating Hannibal by not engaging with the Carthaginian general directly, but through harrying his support lines. Hannibal had more troops, so a pitched battle was not in Rome's interest. Fabius was not popular in the early stages of the second Punic War but became celebrated when the Romans realised that his strategy actually worked. He became one of the heroes of the Roman Republic, and was extolled in histories in the period of the Roman Empire as well.

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The Fabians liked his cautious strategy in political terms, and based their appeal on a great deal of real research into the living conditions of workers, and what would be needed to overcome this or that real problem in English society. Their work had some effect on Conservatives and Liberals too, who saw, from a different perspective, that if revolution were to be avoided, the workers would have to see that they had a real stake in the confutation of the present structure of society. I wrote about this some time ago.

The Fabians in Australia seemed to me for a long time to be sort of think-tank for the ALP, but from the incremental rather than the socialist wing. But I now see that there has been a subtle change in the way they present themselves. If you go to the AFS website you get this:

We aim to promote greater equality of power, wealth and opportunity. We promote debate, encourage research, and publish commentary, into political ideas and public policy reform. We host regular policy forums, conferences, dinners, and networking events with high profile guest speakers.

The Australian Fabians are committed to:

A fairer and more sustainable Australia.
Promoting progressive values in the community.
Developing solutions to the biggest policy challenges of today.

Attuned as I doubtless was to the English and research-based origins of the Fabians fifty years ago, and never having gone to a meeting (though I knew quite a few members) I discovered that this was not quite what I had in mind. Somehow the incremental, cautious, research-based character has gone. What you see here is indistinguishable from any other pro-Labor support group. There's nothing wrong with these aims, but there's nothing especially Fabian about them, either. The sense of fact-based, incremental change is gone.

I mention all this because I have for some time been needling the local secretary about the wholly orthodox ways in which the AFS has been referring to global warming and 'climate change'. Last month the AFS produced a newsletter that gave pride of place to the Pope's encyclical and other essays supporting its message. So I wrote to him as follows:

Why does the Fabian Society assume that 'climate change' is real, caused by human activity and dangerous to humanity and other life forms? There is much better evidence the other way.

Why do you only provide orthodox reading in this area? I have been writing about this issue for ten years now, and have some claim to have experience in assessing science requests for more money to do research. My take on the Pope's encyclical is different (http://donaitkin.com/pope-francis-surveys-the-world-and-its-problems- which-now-include-climate-change/). I don't claim that it is the last word, but shouldn't Fabians be looking at both sides of this question?

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I received a courteous reply, whose central points were these:

The Australian Fabians are dedicated to broadening the debate around making a fairer and more equal Australia – as a result we consider topics such as trade, economic policy, indidgenous affairs, good public administration, and yes, climate change and urban planning…

I understand you have a particular skepticism towards what I consider to be a general scientific consensus on climate change. While the Fabians generally do promote debate, the moral, economic and politicial imperatives of realising a low-pollution future mean that our debate on the topic would focus on particular methods of bringing this about – for example, direct subsidies, carbon pricing, transition schemes, etc. It would not attempt to question the underlying science. Indeed, I can't think of a policy area more crucial to ensuring a fairer Australia in the longer-term than addressing the impacts of carbon pollution…

I am happy to note the concerns you've raised at the next meeting of our Executive, but if this is a particular ongoing concern of yours, the Fabians may not be the organisation you would like us to be.

He's right at the end of his last sentence. Things have changed, and I haven't caught up. Why do I care? Well, let's look at his remark that I can't think of a policy area more crucial to ensuring a fairer Australia in the longer-term than addressing the impacts of carbon pollution… Can I suggest, as nicely as I can, that he really needs to look at the supposed connection between fairness, or equity, and increased greenhouse gases (I'll ignore the scientific illiteracy of 'carbon pollution'). There isn't any, as far as I can determine. If the Fabians are concerned about those who are poorer than others, then they ought to be apprehensive about any policies that increase the cost of energy, because those increases fall most heavily on those for whom the marginal utility of a dollar is greatest. And yes, this is an 'ongoing concern' of mine, and it should be for the Fabians, as well.

True Fabians, I think, would try to escape from the fog of ideology - that's what made them powerful in the beginning. The way you do that is to keep asking the right questions, and digging to get the right answers. The whole area of global warming and 'climate change' is beset with mindless thought-clichés, like 'carbon pollution', 'greatest moral challenge', 'scientific consensus', 'two-degree limit', and the rest of them. These rhetorical devices get in the way of thinking, and they mean nothing when you examine them hard.

If the Fabians are to be true to their origins, then they need to push the fog away, and ask, once again, how they best help to overcome real problems that real Australians have, right now. Thought-clichés aren't the way to do it. And yes, I think that it's time I ended my association with the Fabians.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, published in 2015, is Turning Point, the second novel in The Hogarth Trilogy.

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